Ryan Heffington’s KTCHN: A Dance Installation
Ryan Heffington’s KTCHN is one of the most viscerally, intellectually, and emotionally compelling artworks I have ever experienced. Inspired by the paintings of Nolan Hendrickson, Heffington constructs a universe of psychedelic neon body paint, costumes, and props within which a tribe of charismatic dancers enact a catalogue of human relationships – erotic, romantic, torturous, ecstatic and otherwise – revealing and reveling in the absurdity of the domicile, sex and love. A pack of flamboyent football players, a tap-dancing whore, a wife desperately rearranging her facial features in front of her husband, and Heffington in drag playing the therapist (dancing in heels, mind you) – the characters of KTCHN are abstractions without being caricatures, cutting directly to that deliciously messy human spirit, the carnal core of the human condition. I laughed out loud and teared up too, and I jumped at the chance to participate between stretches of savory catharsis, all the while tapping my foot to the phenomenal soundtrack featuring Dirty Beaches, Low Roar, Shackleton, and Alex Krispin among others. Ever the innovator, Heffington has outdone himself: with its combination of dance, theater, installation, and interactive artwork to express such universally powerful themes, KTCHN establishes a new performative language. Critical without being cynical, boldly earnest with a brilliant sense of humor, utterly spectacular without sacrificing nuance or heart- Ryan Heffington’s KTCHN is an absolute pleasure to behold.
Interview with Ryan Heffington
Drew: How did you come up with the concept for KTCHN? Could you describe the process of scripting the “courses” and proceeding with choreography?
Ryan: I began with compiling major concepts to define what KTCHN would be: an interactive dance, theater, drag, and pop musical installation in dance form. It was a yearlong process to form what each number would become and more recently how they would play as a loose yet cohesive narrative. Through physicalizing these ideas in rehearsals, the show developed into stronger sections that would become longer narratives – giving weight and grounding the concepts of the show.
KTCHN, of course, is inspired by the paintings of Nolan Hendrickson– His “Faggot Carnival” series is the most inspiring for this piece. His characters were my imaginary friends and fantasies. Blending his strong aesthetic with many autobiographical details of the past two years of my life – I made rich tales riding between nonfiction and fantasy. When you walk away from KTCHN you will have experienced a surreal landscape saturated in human conditions and emotions.
Taking on an evening-length piece was daunting at the start. How is one capable of choreographing approximately an hour and thirty minutes of work in less than two months? With most concepts in place prior to rehearsal, I started with the pieces that were more complete. For example, Hunter Hamilton’s solo – a story of a money-driven fame-whore whose trade is tap dancing. Eventually the cast and I were rehearsing daily. It wasn’t until our stage manager suggested that the dancers take a day off that I realized we’d been rehearing for three weeks straight. I had no idea. My blood was pumping day and night with excitement, anxiety, production and merchandising details, promotion angles, scheduling, fundraising ploys, etc. A day off sure – but then we’d rehearse relentlessly until opening night right?
How involved was Nolan Hendrickson? What’s your relationship to him and his work?
Nolan for the most part stood as the pillar of inspiration. He also sketched the set and props that were fabricated by Adrian Gilliland and his team of volunteers. There were moments when I needed the voice of God to dictate explicit details beyond my reach – so I’d call Nolan. How would a therapist of drag nature aesthetically manifest in KTCHN? A round or square dining/therapy table? What’s shape of the soft sculptures (dolls) for merch?
It pretty much started as an online obsession developed by discovering more of Nolan’s work. Brief conversation began with Facebook – then I asked if he’d like to meet up during a short stay in NYC to share an idea I had been brewing. We met, understood each other, shook hands to seal the deal then ended up at a sweaty underground male model boxing tournament.
I feel his work and my life are mirrored images. Flamboyant yet mundane, communal yet isolated. There is a detached feeling from presentation to the inner psyche that his characters and I share. Also, the definition of his characters’ gender roles flux without resting in classic depictions – and as a chameleon myself I love this.
How involved were you with set design and costuming? Had you worked with those artists before?
I curated a small collection of online images of Nolan’s work to share with the costume designer Mindy LeBrock and Art Director Adrian Gilliland. From here I let them create magic. The idea of artists in these mediums interpreting his work was very exciting to Nolan. I was making sure their work translated to live performance with logistics like dancers’ movement and the scale and weight of set and prop pieces, etc. This is where most of conversations were geared. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mindy for years and trust her beyond. For Adrian and I it was our first collaborative project – and was truly amazing – he killed it!
The props were especially delightful — houseplant barbells, etc — how much of that came from the paintings/your imagination/your set designer?
It was a fairly equal collaboration on props and sets. Nolan did the preliminary set design that included rolling planters with Roman columns that frequent his paintings and breasts painted on them. Adrian came up with the weight benches and I insisted on a larger-than-life Connect 4 game, barbells and a pussywillow arrangement that would double as a guitar.
How many of the performers in KTCHN are folks you’ve worked with before? Would you say you have a “company”?
I’ve had the pleasure to work with all of the dancers in this piece prior to KTCHN. Zak is the newest member of the crew – we recently worked together for the first time on a piece I created for Art Basel in Miami months back. And for Hunter and Tara and I – we’ve worked together in some capacity (mostly me being their dance instructor) for nearly 20 years. I don’t consider our collective a company per se but a group of LA dancers who desire to take part in creating artistic fringe work that is beyond commercial or strictly “dance company”/theater work. Even thought I’m able to pay them for their efforts with KTCHN, it still feels more of a passion project than anything else.
Something I really appreciate in this work is its ability to critique while remaining humble, to move the audience without trying too hard, and to elicit laughter while remaining sincere. What tone are you trying to achieve and how do you juggle politics, catharsis, and spectacle in the creation of the work?
I’d say the thesis of my work revolves around humanity and the connection I hope the audience can make with the dance and dancers presented. My work is never over-intellectualized and therefore can speak to a broad spectrum of the population – whether one is versed in dance or new to the form –my work is relatable. Sure my aesthetic can be extreme – and I prefer this- but it’s human connection, our empathy, insecurities and humiliation that define my work. With KTCHN I wanted to take the audience on a journey in and beyond Nolan’s paintings. The interpreted characters both perform and live their daily lives on stage, stumbling through relationships and hiding emotions because they are there to entertain. I wanted the audience to have full access to these characters and erase the boundaries of performer and audience. I wanted to share – instead of bombard our guests with fancy moves – and to allow an experience to take place. After all, KTCHN is no longer a two-dimensional Hendrickson painting but a visceral, psychedelic adaptation that should be swallowed and hopefully will change you and your experience of dance in the most beautiful way.